For several years now a heated debate has been going on over Western civilization and humanities requirements at some distinguished universities, most notably Stanford. The debate has brought up the question of a justification—or lack thereof—for forcing students into a sequence of courses devoted exclusively to Western thought. It has been argued, correctly, that thinkers featured in such courses are preponderantly white and male. Critics complain that such an obligatory program of study perpetuates the mistaken notion that Western white male heterosexuals (pick your own term of opprobrium) have produced the only works that deserve to be studied. Those who raise this charge, mind you, are not devotees of the Analects of Confucius or of the Bhagavad Gita. The lists for alternative, non-Western, or neglected thinkers that have been brought to my attention consist, for the most part, of feminists (either real or alleged). Third World revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon, and advocates of black power. One such list now being circulated at Stanford combines a few serious non-Western and female authors with explicit ideologues once celebrated by the 60’s New Left.
In the face of this challenge to Western thought, some academics have come forth to speak for the “humanities.” A National Association of Scholars has been organized by Stephen Balch, Peter Shaw, and other concerned intellectuals, who are troubled by academic abuses and by the attack on “Western” learning. In its publication, Academic Questions, the NAS has documented the ideological restrictions suffered by professors who challenge leftist dogmas in either the social sciences or the humanities. The same group has made an effort to defend scholars (such as Michael Levin of City University of New York) who have been professionally harassed for taking seriously inherent gender and racial differences. It has also treated positively the by-now controversial scholarship of Stanley Rothman, who has defended the predictive value of IQ tests.
The NAS has no less passionately stressed the link between ideological intolerance and the current academic war against Western civilization. Its members have weighed in behind the campaign to keep required Western humanities courses in the undergraduate curriculum at Stanford. Like former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, the NAS characterizes the American academic community as “an island of repression in a sea of freedom.” It believes that its own conception of Western learning must be impressed on that community in order to make professors and their students more like other, presumably free, Americans.
While much of the work undertaken by the NAS is useful, especially the defense of honest research, the crusade it is now waging on behalf of the “humanities” may be more problematic. The teaching of the humanities did not suddenly become politicized in the 60’s and 70’s. This interpretation of the academic world, popularized in, among other places, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, is tied to another fiction: that the American government was temporarily derailed in the late 60’s when the McGovernites seized the Democratic Party. Thereafter, it is claimed, moderate progressives had to fight to gain back control of the American political mainstream, a task completed in the “Reagan Revolution” of the 80’s.
Finn, who accepts this view, believes that the American people have undergone at least the beginnings of democratic redemption; all that remains to be done is to open the academy to the same process. In a revealing essay for the American Spectator in November 1986, Finn stresses the need to combine “cultural literacy” with Judeo-Christian ethics and democratic value-instruction in preparation for a “conservative” reform of education. He also advocates the celebration of a patriotic calendar, singling out for veneration the figure of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a subsequent letter exchange with William Hawkins, Jr., Finn rebuked his respondent for suggesting that one can be “culturally literate” without believing intensely in democracy. Hawkins had noted the absence of proof that Shakespeare, Bach, or Homer believed in either democracy or equality. Finn’s stated refusal to “engage in any discussion” with a nondemocratic infidel or a critic of democracy was more than an expression of peeve. It indicates the firm design of some who now call for “cultural literacy” and the “humanities” to use the present educational debate for their own political ends.
A predecessor of the NAS, which claimed some of the same leadership and funding, was the Campus Coalition for Democracy of the mid-80’s. Led by Herbert London and Stephen Balch, the CCD defended the humanities and Western civilization against their academic detractors. Both were linked in publications to “American democratic values” and to “scientific methods,” which were further identified with the thinking of Sidney Hook. Hook approached the terms in question from a Deweyite and social democratic world view and considered learning as “instrumental” to the achievement of a particular society.
Not only these groups but the expanding American bureaucratic state and its social science consultants have worked to put all Americans on the side of “democracy.” The American Commissioner of Education, John Ward Studebaker, who was appointed by FDR in 1934, viewed as his own charge the creation of a pro-democratic public educational system. Studebaker’s announced goals coincided with those of the social planner and philosopher John Dewey and immensely pleased the first lady, though not her husband, who considered national education planning entirely within the framework of vocational retraining. Since the 30’s, then, indoctrination in democracy has been deemed necessary to protect Americans against “totalitarianism.” The good fight against fascism and Red fascism made it necessary to strengthen our democratic fiber at home. Toward this end, we were to make our society transparent to educational reformers. The discovery of the “authoritarian personality” by German radical emigres offered new proof that the seeds of fascist totalitarianism were within us. Educating for democracy meant that each of us had to undergo a cathartic learning process through which “democratic values” could take the place of others, including Sidney Hook’s lifelong nemesis (which Dewey also criticized in A Common Faith): traditional religious beliefs. The Columbia University Teachers College Professor James L. Mursell wrote a book in 1934 that was later widely distributed, Principles of Education, in which democracy itself was proclaimed to be a “faith.” It was an “ethical faith” that had to be systematically inculcated, that was inconsistent with “group and clique differentiation, and once propedy taught resulted in a certain type of social order and of political arrangements.”
A work that sums up the old democratic progressive view of education, despite its appeal to the “classics,” is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. A Straussian associate of the neoconservatives and a New Deal-Humphrey Democrat, Bloom exemplifies the moderate left educationism now at war with its more radical descendant. Throughout his book. Bloom speaks of the pollution of American higher learning caused by the “German connection.” Anti-democratic Teutonic figures, particularly Nietzsche, Weber, and Heidegger, are destroying liberal democracy. It is the academy. Bloom insists, that must be in the forefront of the struggle for democracy and rationalism. But academics, who have suffered contamination from popularized Teutonic ideas, are making the general culture even less resistant to antidemocratic forces. Meanwhile professors have ceased to demand for themselves the “special status” befitting the defenders of rationality. Liberal democracy, according to Bloom, can only flourish if the university has “an exemption from the ordinary moral and political limitations on what can be thought and said in civil society.”
It has been observed with justification that Bloom praises democratic equality except in his own backyard. He tries to avoid inconsistency by saying more than once that the progress of equality depends on professional privilege. Beyond this problem, however, another vexing question can be raised about Bloom’s view of the relationship between democracy and education. How can political theory, which Bloom equates with philosophy, move beyond the limitations of a democratic civil society when the only thought that he is willing to tolerate is of a “democratic” kind? He insists the university should be an extension of the Enlightenment; a resource for teaching democracy and rationalism. Among its heroes should be the Anglophile French aristocrat Montesquieu, that defender of property holders John Locke, and the architect of the sovereign state Thomas Hobbes, all of whom Bloom presents as enlightened thinkers who tried to give “political status to what Socrates represented.” By some vague line of association Socrates is made into a precursor of the Bloomian vision of the good life, a religion of democratic equality served by an academic priesthood with a special social status.
Because universities were not sufficiently dedicated to this project (argues Bloom), they succumbed to dangerous antidemocratic thinking. In the face of the “German missionaries and intermediaries” rampant in our culture. Bloom offers this stern homily: “And when we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.” He then goes on to observe that World War II “was an educational project undertaken to force those who do not accept these principles to do so.”
Such support for political missionizing suggests that Bloom and those who praise his work are not disinterested humanists. Their attacks on the Germans as the enemies of democratic education simply rehash ideas and prejudices put forth by John Dewey during both World Wars. Dewey railed at Kant and Hegel as representatives of authoritarian ethics and of an antidemocratic political tradition. Like Bloom, Dewey had favored taking German influences out of the academic curriculum in the name of building his own conception of American democracy.
Other recent defenses of the Western humanities curriculum have been at least equally tendentious. Both William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, for example, defend the teaching of Western thinkers in order to put into relief the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cheney, in a recent Hillsdale speech, deplored the fact that most American youth had never read King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” which is ranked in order of moral and cultural importance with the works of Shakespeare and Dante. The Christian mystic Glement of Alexandria extolled Plato and his disciples as “paidagogountes eis Christon,” teachers leading others to the anointed Savior. In 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, Dr. Cheney proposes her own educational path to salvific truth. In phrases recalling those of her predecessor at NEH, Mr. Bennett, she stresses the real “benefits” offered to students by the study of Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, and other Western luminaries: “King’s work makes this point with particular force. He cited Jefferson’s words and Locke’s to argue the cause of civil rights: he quoted Greek philosophers, British poets, and German theologians.”
Neither Lynne Cheney nor feminist homophiles at Stanford have been the first, to be sure, to treat the humanities as a political football. The humanist scholar Irving Babbitt at the beginning of the century directed the same charge against Harvard President Charles William Eliot and at Eliot’s counterpart at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson. Both university presidents had linked education to “public service” while introducing at their institutions a new emphasis on the administrative sciences. Babbitt complained that their policies would turn academic learning from the goal of ethical self-mastery into an instrument of power. The national administration of Woodrow Wilson—who hoped as an educator to save the young from thralldom to their parents’ irrational beliefs—confirmed Babbitt’s worst fears. It also saw an emerging fateful alliance between republican government and a rising class of public administrators.
By the 1990’s it may be impossible to depoliticize the academy and the humanistic curriculum as an undergraduate rite of passage. If the study of philosophy is, as Socrates states (and as a neo-Platonist I fully agree), “a concern about death” and the fate of the soul, then both Lynne Cheney and her opponents are debating about something far less important. It is not even the teaching of the humanities that is presently at stake, in a sense that would have been intelligible to an earlier generation, as the transmission of a specific culture that was deemed fitting for a Western gentleman or lady. Today’s debate centers on which names and phrases are most appropriate for mouthing at cocktail parties or for defending the welfare state democracy into which our republic has stumbled. It is a battle between the partisans of Sidney Hook and Jesse Jackson, no longer one between Athens and Jerusalem or between the ancients and moderns.
It is frequently asserted that required humanities courses can help train our citizens in democratic self-government. But, alas, Americans have ceased to govern themselves, even if they still “participate” in carefully staged electoral events with the sufferance of public administrators. In the late 19th century, at a time when most Americans received only a few years of schooling, communities did look after themselves while the country abounded in humanities scholars. Nowadays, as is made clear in To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, published by Bennett as NEH director in November 1984, the humanities are seen to promote not self-government but the newer political ideal of pluralism.
The study of great books is proposed in order to acquaint us with those “ideas so revolutionary in their time yet so taken for granted now” that have become “the glue that holds together a pluralistic nation.” The study of humanities will go forth in spite of such fustian. They will flourish if people study them in earnest and encourage their children to do so. But they will certainly not benefit from being inflicted on the young in a superficial form, as political dogma. Even now the humanities continue to be seriously pursued at the best Catholic and Protestant institutions of learning and among small, dedicated groups elsewhere. This is exactly as it should be. Not everyone is meant to be a philosopher or to transmit the wisdom of the past. To his discredit, the philosopher Martin Heidegger advocated a politicized imitation of humanistic education during his involvement with the Third Reich. Some of his American critics now urge us to fight Heidegger’s “fascist” values by using his techniques: by making the humanities into the vehicle of a global democratic or feminist egalitarian agenda. Whatever the political goals, reducing philosophical learning to militant ideology is reprehensible.
There is one battle, however, that conservative academics should be waging at the present time: defending that aspect of the “German connection” known as Lehrfreiheit. The pursuit of research in one’s discipline without ideological harassment is the defining activity of the academic scholar. It is also one now being threatened by the therapeutic state and its terrorist allies on American campuses. In the name of sensitivity and victimology, scholarly and social exchanges have become suspect activities in major universities. According to a recently published Carnegie report on higher education, over sixty university presidents interviewed favor the introduction of more extensive restrictions on speaking and writing among faculties and students. Such restrictions are intended to protect the sensitivities of designated victim groups, particularly blacks, gays, and feminists. The defense of Lehrfreiheit is a moral cause that all nonpolitical academics should hasten to embrace. It is also one that does not degrade the humanities.